The Hidden Truths Of The Salem Witch Trials

We can never fully trust our understanding of historical events. Past events are often reinterpreted, reconstructed and dramatised as the years pass. The Salem Witch Trials are a textbook example of this kind of historic, cultural and political manipulation. The trials took place in 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts. Nineteen men and women were hanged, and one man pressed to death, after being found guilty of witchcraft. Witch trials were common in Europe at the time: thousands of people were executed in the pursuit of religious obedience. However, historians have differing opinions on why the Salem Witch Trials occured. Indeed as Marc Aronson writes “we are not likely to ever know, with certainty, why the events of Salem unfolded as they did” (8).

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However, it seems most likely that the contemporary political situation in Salem, geographic expansion of the colony and religious protocol within the community, rather than an unquestioning belief in devil worship, were perhaps the real causes of the Salem Witch Trials. Loss of political power and stability by the Puritan community should be taken into account when determining the causes of the trials. At the time, King Charles II had revoked legislation that allowed Puritans to live in Massachusetts. The Puritans had violated several laws and so the British Government took away their charter. These violations included discriminating against Anglicans, ‘stringent’ voting stipulations and strong enforcement of biblical teachings (Lustig, Mary Lou, 2002). The revocation technically made it illegal for the Puritans to live in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, making citizens wary and concerned for their future. This may also have made the citizens of the Puritan colony feel like they were being persecuted for their religious beliefs.Another factor that could have influenced political stability in Salem was the massive economic and social growth of other colonies, while the Puritans themselves stayed in “political limbo” (Lustig, Mary Lou, 2002).

The Quakers are a clear example of a community experiencing socioeconomic development; their tolerance of different cultures and religions led to a prosperous colony with diverse inhabitants and a broad array of skill sets. Puritans may have started to see the downsides of a theocratic government, further encouraging dissatisfaction and divide between citizens of Salem, Massachusetts. More over, strict voting regulations would have meant that very few Puritan people had a chance to voice concerns and a significant percentage of the population was silenced, leading to unrest and anger within the community. Strong religious propaganda would have also ensured that citizens believed in uniform values and traditions, essentially scaring away any new possible expat communities, who had been fleeing from Europe or other parts of the world. The hysteria that caused the Salem Witch Trials could have been a result of an isolated, religious population that didn’t see progress as fast as other colonies in the area. Being one of the few Puritan colonies in the world, they may have felt a sense of loneliness and oppression, whilst encountering many instances of political instability leading to the Salem Witch Trials.Additionally, the geographic location of Salem and low availability of resources caused intense stress for the Puritans, particularly as a result of conflict with the surrounding Native American tribes.

While the Puritans attempted to convert some of the Native people, most stayed loyal to their tribes. The Puritans believed that their way of life was superior and many were convinced that they were doing Native Americans a good deed when converting them to Christianity. However, their attempts at growing their colony led to brawls and ambushes. Indeed, the Native Americans better understood America’s ecological systems than any of the settlers (womenhistoryblog.com). In particular, their advanced farming and understanding of the land was evident, leaving the Puritans feeling powerless. The Puritan community in Salem also suffered from internal division. The area was split into two main areas: Salem Village and Salem Town. Both vicinities had a large population and a striking wage gap. The wealthier citizens resided in Salem Town, while a poorer and more conservative population lived in Salem Village. While they were both very different, they were both very co-dependent. Salem Village had acquired the most farmland (where Salem got most of its food from), while Salem Town determined the cost of crops and tax collection. Whilst they both had their own church, both districts required one another to survive. The Puritan colony’s internal stresses may have led to a fearful, distrusting population. The wealthiest families in Salem Village and Town were rivals. The Putnams of Salem Village owned a significant portion of the area’s farmland, and the Porters of Salem Town, were wealthy merchants that cultivated affluent friends. These two families held petty grudges against one another and had significant political power in Salem. Their status allowed them to stir up drama, especially when Mr. Putnam’s daughter, Ann Putnam Jr. was claimed to bewitched.In addition, Samuel Parris, the reverend of Salem Village was an influential theocratic leader who was minister during the Salem Witch Trials. In his short career as a reverend, he rejected the ‘halfway covenant’, a partial church membership, that allowed a relaxed and more inclusive religious community. He didn’t allow non-members to stay for communion. This angered many in the population as he was strict and more orthodox compared to leaders prior to his ministry. He also argued over the terms of his parsonage suggesting that the minister’s house was ‘gifted’ to him for life rather than just during the terms of work.

While a vote was held in favour of granting him the house, several people were angered that the decision was only passed by the small population that showed up to vote. He split Salem Village in two: Pro Parris and Anti Parris.As the same time, a culture of suspicion grew in the area as the Puritans believed in moral policing, in which neighbors and friends would spy and report if anything seemed odd within the tight knit Salem community. This belief even lead to ‘unintentional’ witches: normal people who feared they were witches and walked themselves to court. Young women would often believe that it was their duty to report their friends or even themselves in the noble pursuit of abolishing witchcraft. People at the time felt like they could not trust anyone or anything as friends and neighbors turned against each other. When the feeling of distrust circulated in Salem, the witch trials might have been the unfortunate consequence of a community that feared secrets and the occult.Community tensions were also high as waves of expats had arrived in New England and Massachusetts before the Salem Witch Trials. Many of these expats did not believe in Puritan values, making it hard for the Puritans to trust them. Samuel Parris insisted that becoming a full member of the local church could only be achieved through baptism and a public declaration of alliance with the church. While many expats did convert to Christianity, several still did not believe in Puritan social values and beliefs. In many cases, joining the Puritan community was an act of survival, not an act of alliance. While the ‘halfway covenant’ existed in other communities, it was formally banned by Samuel Parris and looked down upon by the local population, leading to deep internal division. Many expats may also have been more open-minded than the Puritans. The Scientific Revolution was a major technological development in Europe. When populations moved from progressive Europe to Newfoundland, they would have experienced an extreme change in setting and a closed, unfriendly community.

Whereas scientific breakthroughs produced a rational outlook on life in other parts of the world, the Puritan community retained its highly repressive and strict values.Indeed, an alternative popular scientific theory about the Salem Witch Trials is the influence of Ergot poisoning. The infamous fungi can be found commonly on Rye plants: Salem’s biggest food source. The side effects of Ergot poisoning can range from convulsions and vertigo to comas and psychosis. Several connections can be drawn between the side effects of Ergot poisoning and the symptoms suffered by the first girls who were believed to be ‘bewitched’. The nasty side effects of this toxicity could have definitely contributed to the witch hunt in Salem. Research conducted by the University of Bristol has connected Ergot to LSD, saying that “although LSD is purely synthetic, clues to its biological activity can be found by tracing the history of the fungus from which it is derived” (May, Paul. 1998). LSD is notoriously known as a strong hallucinogen similar in chemical structure to Ergot, further proving the likelihood of Ergot poisoning during the Salem Witch Trials. Perhaps if the Salem community had been more open-minded they could have looked to science for alternative explanations for witchcraft.In retrospect, the Puritan religion was known for its demanding practices and strong commitment, it was almost as if Puritanism was defined by its intense “religious experience that it fostered” (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2018).

Being a Puritan came with intense pressure to conform to Salem’s standards of behavior. Some scholars also believe bad feeling was fostered as the Puritan community lived with a sense of entitlement. Children were raised to believe that they were smarter and stronger than the average person, inculcating a community mindset of supremacy. New residents of the Puritan colony often faced discrimination because they were not chosen by God. The sense of superiority that the Puritans had only pushed newcomers and their ideas further away. These attitudes not only intimidated newcomers, but also reduced the colony’s chance of gaining outside perspective and opinion on the accusations of witchcraft. The demanding lifestyle also made surrounding communities weary of the Puritans. Their faith in biblical teachings was so strong and their rules and behaviours so strict, that they could potentially be compared to a modern day cult. The Salem Witch Trials were one of the most infamous moments in American history. The hysteria, chaos and violence still intrigues historians more than three centuries later. In the present day, we can see there were no witches, warlocks or devils.

Accusations most likely rose from resentful, unheard community members that had been silenced by strict practices and traditions. The people of Salem seem to have blamed their troubles on witches and devils because it was a reasonable explanation for their turmoil. Although the Puritans had a strong belief in struggle, it is ironic that when faced with adversity they turned against one another and blamed their troubles on witchcraft. Today, in modern society, we behave similarly: we blame our struggles on migrants and the government instead of closely examining the challenges that life presents. In short, the overwhelming changes in politics, society and ethics could have been the primary factors behind the mysterious Salem Witch Trials.

31 August 2020

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